There is much to delight (and even titillate) readers in David Pevsner’s memoir “Damn Shame: A Memoir of Desire, Defiance, and Show Tunes” (Random House Canada, 2021). A familiar face (and body) to fans of indie gay movies, popular TV series, Broadway and off-Broadway musical theater, and OnlyFans, Pevsner bares all in this no-holds-barred memoir. “Damn Shame” is the true story of “a little boy who knew what he wanted in his soul but had no idea what it meant.” Readers can follow Pevsner from his suburban Chicago (read: Skokie) roots to college and the theater, with various side trips including being a naked house-cleaner, an escort, a professional organizer, and a songwriter. Pevsner manages to strike a balance between light and dark subject matter, telling his truth, (anal) warts and all.
Gregg Shapiro: David, your memoir Damn Shame is separated into two acts, which feels like a nod to your theater background. Am I on the right track and is that the way it was planned from the start?
David Pevsner: Absolutely. With the big ol’ drama queen in me, I have always felt my life has unfurled in acts and scenes, so using those elements made sense to me, with some scenes – chapters – being shorter, some longer, some simpler and whimsical, some more involved and complex. However, it’s not at all like reading a play with only dialog and stage directions. It’s still prose, still biography, and is, I believe, a very emotional, funny, and brutally honest read.
GS: Having talked to, and interviewed, you over the course of many years, I can safely say that the book sounds like you. It’s written in such a way that it feels intimate in the way you are sharing very personal experiences. Was there a specific ol’ drama queen in me, I have always felt my life has unfurled in acts and scenes, so using those elements made sense to me, with some scenes – chapters – being shorter, some longer, some simpler and whimsical, some more involved and complex. However, it’s not at all like reading a play with only dialog and stage directions. It’s still prose, still biography, and is, I believe, a very emotional, funny, and brutally honest read. moment when you realized that was happening and did you ever feel any hesitation?
DP: I’ve always been told I write like I talk and I’m a pretty open guy who really doesn’t hold back in conversation. I adore chatting with folks, I try to find humor in all situations. I get emotional when I talk about love and heartache, and if I’m angry about something, like politics or gay rights? Get out of the dam way! Outrage, snark, and sarcasm about. I tried to put all of that into the text, no hesitation. It’s written with the hope that it entertains because no matter what I do, I’m an entertainer at heart. Even my personal organizing clients would attest to that.
GS: In “The Boyfriend” chapter, you wrote about “my first journal.” Were you a consistent journal or diary keeper or did you rely on memory when for reference while writing the memoir?
DP: I was not a consistent journal writer throughout my life. I started in high school and a little bit in college, but it became a lot of “Who am I? Why am I? I’m so depressed! I’m so lonely! I like him, he doesn’t like me, blahdy blah blah…” Yikes! The journals are just so very angst-y and dramatic, but definitely a memory booster, and I did find some material that was pretty substantive and important to my story. They kind of yammer on but there were some pretty funny stuff in there that I filched. And though I don’t think I have a great memory, while in the midst of writing certain chapters, getting as lost as I could in the story, details would pop into my head, truths that I had maybe forgotten but were important and resonant. And there’s one story in the book about a guy I was involved with in the early ’80s that I had totally forgotten about and realized it had to be in there. I had to hyper-apply my brainpower to it, but suddenly it flowed out of me into the computer, and with only a few tweaks, it’s in the book. And when I finished that chapter, I bawled my eyes out.
GS: How much of the memoir is drawn from the scripts of your one man shows?
DP: There are definitely chunks from both of my shows because they focused on important moments in my life in conjunction with sex and body shame, but even if you’ve seen either of them, there’s plenty here beyond. Plus, I had to really whittle down the narrative for the plays, and there are so many details that I had to lose that really up the storytelling, emotional depths, and humor. So, though you may recognize a few situations in there from my shows, they are way more detailed and nuanced in the book. Also, what plays on the stage doesn’t necessarily read well on the page, and my fantastic editor Scott Sellers was a champion at helping me adapt. But there’s a ton of other stuff in the book beyond those stories. This is not a retread of my plays. This is my whole life, from birth to now, told through the lens of body shame and sexuality, covering much more ground, and way more provocative and involved than I could possibly get on a stage. And as you know, I did not hold back.
GS: That is true! In “The Music Man” chapter, which is set in 1996, you mentioned writing “essays and stories about my life.” Have you, in various ways, been working on this book since that time?
DP: I never thought I had a book in me. I thought it was just creative writing to get some stories out of my system, but then I started to funnel some of them into my stage work. Most others did not make it into this book because they did not ascribe to the development of the sweet, smart little ham of a boy into this introspective, self-deprecating, erotically obsessed, somewhat damaged but ever hopeful and idealistic man, and the nudity/sexuality/ageism/shame themes that I set up in “Damn Shame”. Maybe down the line, I’ll do a collection of essays with the unused ones.
GS: Throughout the book, you use real and made-up names for people that you are writing about. With that in mind, why did you choose to tell the story in memoir format versus fictionalizing it as a novel?
DP: I knew that I would be much more in the moment and forthcoming if I wrote the truth as it happened without fictionalizing; “truth is stranger than fiction” really holds in my experiences. There are some made-up names in the book, but when I wrote it, I used the real names. That kept faces, voices, and incidents much clearer in my head. But for either legal reasons or reasons of my own humanity and discretion (like when I talk about sex), I chose to change some names — especially the ones up to and including college (after, I do use more real names). I didn’t feel it was right of me to drag some names into it when I was talking about my development sexually. I’m way upfront about it all, but not everyone is, and though I’m working hard to loosen folks up about sex, I had to respect that. I also found that if I used the real name of one person, it fully dragged in the name of someone they were connected with that I absolutely could not expose. It was tough, but really, the names don’t count. The experiences do. But let’s just say Topol, Kirk Cameron, a teacher from Carnegie Mellon, and maybe one or two others don’t come out so well. Fuck ‘em [laughs].
GS: Have your sisters read the book?
DP: I sent them the passages in which they’re mentioned and they signed off. They haven’t read the whole book yet and I’m not sure they want to. I actually think they’ll like it because though it sometimes gets a little graphic in the discussion of my personal and business life, I think it’s also a lot of fun. And since they were my nemeses at times growing up, I asked my editor if I was being too harsh about them. He said that they don’t come off as evil–they come off as typical older sisters, something so many can identify with. I make it clear before I mention them, and in the acknowledgments, how great they are and that I love them to death, but I had to use our relationship as kids to tell my story. And it’s not like I could have made them up or changed their names. And in the end, they were OK with what I wrote about them because it’s the truth, and I so appreciate them giving their thumbs up. They’re the best.
GS: Did you have a target audience in mind while writing the book?
DP: I can’t say that I did, however, I knew that gay guys my age would be able to handle the stuff that’s a little more graphic, so I didn’t feel the need to censor myself. What I’ve since learned, though, is that women love to talk about sex in a more graphic way as well, and as I’ve read passages of it to groups of all ages and genders, they get it, they love it, they totally identify. Plus, I talk a lot about ageism in the book from my standpoint as a 62-year-old gay man, but what I’ve written goes beyond that age group. If you’ve ever felt irrelevant or overlooked, you’ll appreciate it. And yes, I talk about being an escort and my sex life, there’s some full-frontal nudity in the photo sections, and there are a couple of fisting jokes thrown in (because nothing makes me laugh more than a good fisting joke) [laughs] but I promise that readers will relate to my experiences, no matter their gender, age, or sexuality.
GS: In addition to being known as an actor, you have also had a prolific career as a songwriter and include song lyrics throughout. Please say something about why you chose to do that?
DP: I chose to include some of my lyrics because I wanted to have the essence of a musical, as they were so intrinsic to who I am. My lyrics have always come out of real situations in my life, so they were a natural addition, and I hope, a lot of fun for the reader. I also think some of my best writing is in my lyrics and I’m really proud of them. I’m a rhyme freak; I think a good rhyme crackles and can evoke a laugh or an emotion in a different way than prose. I assumed folks wouldn’t necessarily want to read full sets of lyrics, and I certainly didn’t want to stop the flow of the storytelling, so we were pretty judicious about choosing them – little chunks or lines that help to either tell my story or add some whimsical or emotional texture to what’s been written. So why not?
GS: Is David Sedaris, who you write about, aware of his inspiration and that he’s mentioned in your book?
DP: I don’t think so. I’ve not met him in person or been in touch since I randomly called him on the phone 26 years ago.
GS: In the chapter title “My One and Only,” which is one of the longest in the book and closes out the first part of the book, you write about your difficult relationship with a boyfriend named Reid. Do you know if he is aware of the memoir, as well as his presence in it?
DP: I assume he does, but I don’t know for sure.
GS: How different do you think the direction your professional life has taken would be if not for the internet and your social media presence on Tumblr, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and OnlyFans?
DP: If you’re talking about my acting career and how my erotic presence on social media affects it, well, I was working up until Covid as an actor, jumping from stage to TV to indie stuff and the web, and right now, I’m focusing on the writing. There’s some fun stuff in the book regarding my online presence and my legit acting career, and I know there are venues professionally I may not be invited into, but that’s part of the book. I don’t believe that should be and I make my case for it. As for the rest of my professional life, besides writing and acting, I have my personal organizing biz, I produce content for my OnlyFans, I dramaturg, I narrate audiobooks (including Damn Shame), I paint, and I will continue to stick my toes into every aspect of the business we call show, and I love all of it. Let me be creative and I’m a happy guy.
GS: Finally, David, in addition to writing about your career triumphs, you don’t shy away from writing about your negative performance experiences, which made me wonder if, in a way, you consider the book to be a kind of instruction manual for young performers.
DP: Lord knows there are things I discovered on my way to being 62 and being a professional performer for 40 years that I would have loved to have known back then, but I think we all have to go through what we need to by ourselves, not necessarily through advice, to really land the point. However, I do feel as though some of my experiences trying to maintain the artist in me while going through self-esteem issues or stage fright or the difficulties of being fully out in the biz (it has come a long way since I started out) might inspire a kid who wants to perform but feels crippled in a way by his/her own mind. One overall theme in this book, regarding not just performing, but also becoming your authentic self sexually and personally, is confidence. I think confidence is the key, and I have struggled with it my whole life. And I know for a fact that I am not the only one. So, if young performers read my story and feel inspired to find their truth in regards to life and career, to find the confidence to achieve their dreams, nothing would move me more. : :DP: Lord knows there are things I discovered on my way to being 62 and being a professional performer for 40 years that I would have loved to have known back then, but I think we all have to go through what we need to by ourselves, not necessarily through advice, to really land the point. However, I do feel as though some of my experiences trying to maintain the artist in me while going through self-esteem issues or stage fright or the difficulties of being fully out in the biz (it has come a long way since I started out) might inspire a kid who wants to perform but feels crippled in a way by his/her own mind. One overall theme in this book, regarding not just performing, but also becoming your authentic self sexually and personally, is confidence. I think confidence is the key, and I have struggled with it my whole life. And I know for a fact that I am not the only one. So, if young performers read my story and feel inspired to find their truth in regards to life and career, to find the confidence to achieve their dreams, nothing would move me more.